After a federal judge in Florida ruled Monday that U.S. health agencies do not have the authority to uphold a national transportation mask mandate, White House officials said that in light of the ruling the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would not be enforcing the federal mask requirement on airplanes, in airports, and on other forms of public transportation.
One by the one, U.S. airlines responded with updated policies.
United Airlines stated Monday evening that, “Effective immediately, masks are no longer required at United on domestic flights, select international flights (dependent upon the arrival country’s mask requirements) or at U.S. airports.”
“While this means that our employees are no longer required to wear a mask—and no longer have to enforce a mask requirement for most of the flying public—they will be able to wear masks if they choose to do so, as the CDC continues to strongly recommend wearing a mask on public transit,” United said in a statement sent to AFAR.
Delta Air Lines stated that while the mask mandate would no longer be enforced in airports and on airplanes, “Delta employees and customers may continue wearing masks if they so choose.”
The airline asked that fliers proceed with patience and understanding in the coming hours and days. “Given the unexpected nature of this announcement, please be aware that customers, airline employees and federal agency employees—such as TSA—may be receiving this information at different times. You may experience inconsistent enforcement during the next 24 hours as this news is more broadly communicated. Remember to show understanding and patience with others who may not be aware enforcement is no longer required,” Delta stated.
American Airlines, too, said Monday that “in accordance with the Transportation Security Administration no longer enforcing the federal face mask mandate, face masks will no longer be required for our customers and team members at U.S. airports and on domestic flights.”
American reminded travelers that face masks might still be required based on local ordinances—for example, Philadelphia has a newly reinstated indoor mask mandate—or when traveling to or from international destinations that may require masking on planes.
Alaska Airlines also immediately moved to make masks optional on its flights following the news.
The ruling that resulted in the federal mask mandate being abandoned so abruptly came in the form of a 59-page court order issued on April 18 by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, stating that the CDC failed to properly justify its mask order and did not follow proper federal procedures in implementing it.
Her decision came less than one week after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the TSA announced that they would be extending the transportation mask requirement another two weeks until May 3, 2022, due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases and the spread of the BA.2 subvariant. The mandate was previously set to expire on April 18.
The White House called Monday’s ruling “disappointing,” and White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters that “we’re continuing to recommend people wear masks.”
The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, asked for calm amid the confusion spurred by the ruling. “We will soon have more legal analysis on what this means and what next steps may be taken in court by the government,” AFA said in a statement. The Biden administration could still seek to appeal the order.
“We urge focus on clear communication so that flight attendants and other frontline workers are not subject to more violence created by uncertainty and confusion,” AFA stated.
Air rage, often prompted by the federal masking policy, has been on the rise and can put flight attendants and crew in harm’s way. In its latest report, dated April 12, 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said that airlines have already reported 1,150 incidents involving unruly passengers this year, and 744—or 65 percent—are related to face mask issues.
The AFA noted that it’s impossible to “simply flip a switch” when it comes to aviation policy and procedures and that it could take a day or two to iron out the details of this new ruling. “We encourage travelers to check the latest updates from airlines for specific travel requirements while airlines implement any new policies,” AFA stated.
The transportation mask mandate dates back to January 2021, when the Biden administration and the CDC issued orders making it obligatory to wear masks in airplanes, airports, ships, ferries, trains, subways, buses, taxis, and train, bus, and subway stations. (School buses and vans are exempt as of February 25.) U.S. airlines had already been requiring that passengers and crew wear masks since mid-2020.
But the administration has been under mounting pressure to drop the transportation mask mandate.
On March 23, the top executives at the nation’s leading airlines sent a letter to President Biden urging the administration to drop the federal transportation mask mandate and the international COVID-19 testing requirement for travelers entering the U.S.
“Much has changed since these measures were imposed and they no longer make sense in the current public health context,” read the letter, which was signed by the CEOs of Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, and United.
“It is critical to recognize that the burden of enforcing both the mask and predeparture testing requirements has fallen on our employees for two years now . . . and subjects them to daily challenges by frustrated customers,” the letter stated.
A large portion of travelers has also been ready for masks to come off—54 percent said they wanted the federal mask mandate to expire, according to a recent survey released by travel app TripIt from Concur. TripIt surveyed more than 700 of its U.S.-based users earlier this month and found that just one-third hoped the mask mandate would be further extended, while 16 percent didn’t have a preference either way.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.